Public Forums: Public Has Much to Say About Jones Library Expansion. Budget Forum Brings out Support for CRESS


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Report on the Special Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, November 20, 2023

This is the report of the two public forums that preceded the regular council meeting. It was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here

In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen, (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large),  Pam Rooney (District 4) and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne(District 5). Participating remotely:  Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4) and Ellisha Walker (at large). 

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Council Urged Not to Approve More Borrowing for Library at This Time
The majority of comments offered by the public urged the council not to approve any more borrowing for the Jones library renovation project  at this time.

The Finance Committee is still discussing the request for the town to borrow an additional $9.8 million for the Jones Library expansion project because of increased costs of construction. According to the agreement between the library trustees and the town, the trustees are responsible for raising this additional money, with the town’s share capped at the $15.8  million agreed to by the council in April, 2021. Most commenters expressed concern about  putting the town at greater financial risk and noted that the town would be responsible for the debt service on the additional borrowing. They also questioned the premature nature of authorizing additional borrowing now, when requests for bids on the plan will not be taken until January or February. 

Council President Lynn Griesemer said that the Finance Committee will continue its evaluation of the request at its November 28 and December 1 meetings and bring its recommendation to the December 4 council meeting, when a vote will be taken. Nine councilors must approve the additional borrowing for it to pass. 

Details of the cost estimates received by the library had not been made public prior to this forum, but Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the two estimates received were close and “seemed solid.” He does not expect the actual bids to vary much from the $46.1 million estimates.

Jeff Lee asked the town to be more honest about the project. He noted that the town’s share will increase with the added debt service; debt service for the original borrowing is estimated at $9.1 million but has not been included in summaries of costs. He also asked the town to stop perpetuating the false idea that a repair plan would be more expensive than the full project, pointing out that the town would not undertake such a plan without a commitment from the library, that the cost of repairs could be reduced by value engineering, and that the repairs could be done incrementally. He added that town staff have spent time on a Plan B (that is, a repair-only plan), but not much about it has been shared publicly. He praised the library trustees’ fundraising and grant writing, but argued that the grants should not be the reason for undertaking the full project. “It’s like the tail wagging the dog,” he said. 

Peggy Matthews Nilsen emphasized the importance of  balancing wants and needs. She noted that in public forums, the roads, DPW station, and fire station consistently ranked higher than the library, and that the library expansion project was wasteful and extravagant even when the cost was $36 million. “A wealthy town like Concord, which has the equivalent number of year-round residents[as Amherst], about 17,000, spent only $12 million to expand its historic public library, and it’s set to open next year,” she said. She labeled the expansion “an elite vanity project.” 

Kitty Axelson Berry spoke against supporting the financial sector with the additional $2 to $5 million of interest alone for an “otherwise unaffordable” project.

Rudy Perkins stressed the risk the project poses to the town. He said that “we have already jeopardized our progressive climate commitments for later buildings by severely capping the budgets of other town capital projects in order to support the funding of this library expansion.” He pointed out that a new DPW and fire station will have to be net zero, but the Jones Library is exempt because it is not owned by the town. Perkins recommended amending the Memorandum of Agreement between the town and the library to make it clear that the library is responsible for all costs not covered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners grant and the town’s $15.8 million contribution, and said that the library should be held  responsible for the costs of interim borrowing.

Ken Rosenthal said that although library supporters claim that 64% of those who voted supported going through with the library project in the fall of 2021, 36%, a substantial number, voted against it. In addition, he said, the library they were voting on at that time is very different from the one in today’s plans. He suspects that the town cannot afford the project and should wait for the actual cost figures to be revealed before increasing our commitment. (Editor’s note: The referendum on the library drew a turnout of roughly 33% of registered voters, so the oft-made claim that “64% of Amherst voters” support the borrowing for the library expansion is incorrect on two counts: It was 64% of one-third of Amherst’s registered voters who supported the borrowing, and they supported a contribution by the town of $15.8M but have not voted on additional town funding of the project.)

Amber Cano Martin noted that, prior to the election, all candidates for election to the Town Council  said that they would not support any extra money for the library beyond the $15.8 million plus $9 million in interest already approved. Yet now, shortly after the election, they are considering a proposal for more borrowing, which will increase the town’s financial obligation to the project. She said that constituents in her district spoke to her  of the many other needs in town that surpass the need for this library project, including para educators in the elementary school libraries used by children every day. Allegra Clark agreed, and added that putting the library endowment at risk if fundraising falls short seems like “a really dangerous place for the library to put itself in.”

While decrying the poor condition of the library, Ira Bryck said that the needs of a new fire station and DPW far surpass this “mega expansion that has grown in cost and shrunken in quality, and is taking up all the oxygen in the room.” He questioned the wisdom of building a library for 51,000 users when there are only 19,000 library card holders.

Maria Kopicki noted that the vote on additional borrowing had originally been scheduled for this meeting, even though it would be taken without a cash flow analysis, detailed design or specifics, and an analysis on how it would affect other needed capital projects. The town has argued over expenses of $20,000 at the Joint Capital Planning Committee, she said, “[but here] we are told, ‘Just trust us. We think the bids will not exceed the estimates, and that fundraising will meet the needs.’” She continued, “We need to take off the rose-colored glasses and be honest about this project.” 

Toni Cunningham agreed that there is likely to be a “ripple effect” on other capital projects in town because of the large amount of money borrowed for the library, and noted that the library’s last repayment to the town is not due until June of 2027.  She added that any repair plan should make the library fully electric and accessible, just as the larger plan does.

Julian Hynes also worried about the impact of this project on the DPW and fire station projects, and expressed his concern for  employees at both places, who must work every day in dangerous and toxic conditions. Meanwhile, those projects are rated “critical” and the library is only rated “moderate,” yet the library is being done first.

Isolda Ortega Bustamante and Nancy Gilbert also cited dire needs in the town that outrank the library. Ortega Bustamante cited the need of vulnerable residents for transportation, healthcare, childcare, and educational support. Gilbert said the town needs a senior center and a teen center, and needs to increase its readiness for a public health emergency, such as another pandemic.

Pat Ononibaku maintained that the library is not a welcoming place for teens of color and should not be the location of a teen center.

Josna Rege noted the “skyrocketing property taxes” that may force people like her and her husband to move out of town and prevent young families whose children would attend the new elementary school from moving to Amherst. She cautioned about increasing the financial burden of the town, especially for a building that is not owned by the town.

Sigrid Nilsen said that this project has been divisive from the beginning. He urged the library to “go back to the drawing board to design a reasonably priced library that the town can afford.”

In support of the library project, Allegra Haupt said that repairs alone would not be sufficient to create a welcoming space for residents of all ages. Nancy Campbell, who serves on the board of the Friends of the Jones Library, cited positive reviews the library plan received from the National Endowment for the Humanities when it gave its largest grant this year as a challenge grant for a Humanities Center [to house the Special Collections and Civil War tablets] in the library. According to Campbell, this $1 million grant, which will be awarded if the library raises $4 million, can only be used for the expansion project, not the repair plan.

Ninth-grader Inana Balkin spoke of the library as a community space that the voters supported in a democratic process in 2021. She added that when she and her friends go downtown, they go to coffee shops or bubble tea places, and the library would offer an alternative place where they would not have to spend money. 

Newly elected Jones Library Trustee Eugene Goffredo said that when he was campaigning, 98%  of the people he talked to supported the library expansion. He felt that to reject it would forfeit $23 million and cost more in the long run to make the library usable. 

Deb Leonard agreed, saying that the merits of the project have been debated and resolved, although not to everyone’s satisfaction. She cautioned that Amherst will not go to the front of the MBLC line if it turns down its grant.

Laura Drauker said that, in 2019, town staff noted that there were four dire large capital projects and that because of grant cycles, the school and the library are first. She stated that pausing the library will not enable the DPW and fire station to go forward, and the library will still need repair.

Finally, Jones Library Trustee and Treasurer Bob Pam said there has been an outpouring of support for the project, and that this would be a good time for more pledges and cash gifts.”We appreciate all of the pledges and donations that have already been made — these are important and are very much why we have some confidence to go forward, but in the next two weeks or so, the Town Council will take a vote on whether the project proceeds. Now would be an excellent time to make or increase pledges and cash, and turn any pledges that have been made into cash because this is exactly when people on the council want to know whether it’s real.”

Budget Forum Brings Out Support for CRESS Program
Prior to beginning public comments, Bockelman and comptroller Holly Drake gave a brief summary of the financial indicators presentation that they presented at the November 13 Town Council meeting. The PowerPoint presentation projected a 3% increase in the operating budgets of the town, schools, and library, and a continued investment of 10.5% of the budget for capital expenses. Drake noted that, although property taxes have risen by 2½ % every year, they have remained fairly flat when adjusted for inflation.

Bockelman said that there is excellent collaboration among different departments in town, and that Amherst will continue to manage its funds frugally, use reserves prudently, supplement the budget with grants, and encourage sustainable development. He plans to pursue strategic partnerships with Amherst and Hampshire Colleges, like the one reached this year with UMass. 

 In the public forum, Vincent O’Connor noted that when Amherst College converted its fraternities to dorms in the 1980s, it removed all of those structures from the tax rolls, creating a “budget hole” that exists to this day. He suggested that Amherst College contribute annually to the elementary and regional schools, and that UMass contribute to road repair because many of the cars using our roads are owned by students who pay excise tax to their home communities, not to Amherst.

Birdy Newman advocated for a FY2025 budget that prioritizes public safety, social justice, and community building. She spoke for reducing the police budget and fully funding the CRESS program so that it operates 24/7. Allegra Clark and Pat Ononibaku agreed that funding CRESS fully should be a priority, and  that a youth empowerment center should also be a high priority. Clark wanted the town to avoid cuts to the schools, and to support reparations and affordable housing. Ononibaku asked for more support for Black-owned businesses and the creation of the residents’ oversight board to evaluate complaints against the police.

Elizabeth Haygood requested additional funds for the Human Rights Commission, so that they can continue to sponsor cultural and heritage events. She said the HRC spends about $22,000 on these events every year, but is asking for $10,000 to $15,000 and will fundraise for the remaining amount. Nancy Gilbert decried the low amount of funding for the Public Health Department which is far below that of Easthampton and Northampton, even though Amherst has a larger population (when UMass students are included).

Jeff Lee chided the town, saying that its approach to spending is neither conservative nor disciplined. He stated that building a new DPW and fire station were ranked as high priority, while the library was ranked medium priority, but the town continues to “throw money at the library, the most expensive recent library project in the state.”

Lou Conover cautioned about potential problems due to staging for library construction. The town parking lot behind CVS is in terrible condition, he said and if it is used for library construction vehicles and materials, it will be out of commission for two years and  will probably be unusable after that, necessitating an additional expense to reconstruct it.

The public forums ended at 8:20 p.m. The regular council meeting began at 8:40 and ended at 11:25 p.m. The council next meets on December 4.

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16 thoughts on “Public Forums: Public Has Much to Say About Jones Library Expansion. Budget Forum Brings out Support for CRESS

  1. In a November 2021 referendum more than a third of voters opposed town funding of the library project. Since then it has been revealed that the Town is expected to incur $9.1M in interest payments on borrowing for the project, and a slew of desired features have been eliminated from the design to cut costs. So the odds of 98% of any sampling of Amherst residents supporting the library project, as newly elected trustee Eugene Goffredo claims, are astronomically low.

    Mr. Goffredo should answer to the fact that during his election campaign he did not disclose, either in his campaign literature or public appearances, that his wife, Ginny Hamilton, is a paid employee of the Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign (JLCC), and one of the original leaders of the pro-library-project PAC, Amherst Forward.

    In fact, four professional fundraisers working for the JLCC — Hamilton, Matt Blumenfeld, Claudia Canale-Parola and Kent Faerber — have sat on the leadership team of Amherst Forward. The JLCC reported paying out $247,000 in fundraising personnel expenses through the end of September, so it is clearly in the personal financial interest of the Amherst Forward-JLCC fundraisers to prolong the bloated project as long as possible, and to extract the maximum amount of funding from Amherst taxpayers.

    It is worth noting that the only loser in the library trustee race was Ed McGlynn, who alone among seven candidates questioned the cost to the public of the $46.1M library project. Of course Mr. McGlynn was also the only candidate not to be endorsed by Amherst Forward.

  2. In fact, in the November 2, 2021 election, 16,187 Amherst residents were qualified to vote. Of those, only 5,043 voters chose to weigh in on the Jones proposal. Of those, 3,231 ( 64%) voted yes. Forever after that 64% figure has been quoted to indicate wide-spread support, when actually only 20% of registered voters cast yes votes. Hardly overwhelming support by any stretch of the imagination.

  3. Help us with the math please. What percentage of Amherst voters voted in support of the 2021 library plan?

  4. “low amount of funding for the Public Health Department which is far below that of Easthampton and Northampton, even though Amherst has a larger population (when UMass students are included).”

    This is the fundamental problem of the “population” game that Amherst-ians continually deal with. That fact is, the population of the town of Amherst is not equivalent to “54,000” and it’s not equivalent to “17,000”. It’s not even “somewhere in between”. It varies, depending on the use, because unlike most towns, whose populations are the same for all the times of the year, and for all the services, we have —

    • 17,000 full-time residents, who make typical uses of all services — roads, schools, utilities, emergency, etc.
    • some number of school-year in-town residents (disproportionately renters) — who use roads, don’t use schools, have some different patterns of emergency use, use plumbing and water and so on;
    • some large number of school-year on-campus residents, who use a really different profile of services, including a lot of services that are provided by UMass (or Amherst or Hampshire); UMass in particular is in many ways equivalent to its own city, with its own police, restaurants, housing, etc.

    It’s quite frustrating to see administrators and project advocates use 50,000-level numbers willy-nilly, without actually acknowledging the complexity of our town population.

    FOR EXAMPLE — and with respect to Ms. Gilbert, because I certainly appreciate the advocacy for our Public Health Dept — nevertheless, of the Public Health Department’s services, how many of them are used by the different populations? I imagine, for instance, that the vast majority of on-campus UMass students use UMass’s health center. What about the off-campus UMass students? I imagine many of them are covered by parents’ insurance, and are either using UMass campus health services, or their health services back home — but that’s just me imagining. I can’t assess the Public Health Dept’s needs in any remotely reasonable way without more information than “we have less money than towns of 50,000 people”.

    Has there been a study or report somewhere that really looks at the economy and town services and the differential impact of our different residential / lifestyle communities?

  5. I am writing to provide data that support my concern related to the funding of the Amherst Health Department. It is hard to compare apples to apples when one examines the health departments’ budgets for Amherst, Northampton, and Easthampton. To do this I used each town’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget published on-line.

    In looking at total population, it is difficult to obtain the number of year round, non-student residents in Amherst. For this comparison, I used the US Census Bureau Quick Facts, July 2022 and subtracted 20,000 to estimate college students living in town to provide an approximation for Amherst’s population.

    To provide a more accurate accounting of personnel services, I made several adjustments:
    1. I removed Health Inspectors salaries from Northampton and Easthampton budgets. Amherst moved their health inspectors from the Health Department to Inspection Services in 2016.
    2. I did not include the salaries of grant funded and other positions such as the regional public health nurse, Drug Abuse Response Team (DART) positions, Division of Community Care (DCC) positions, or overtime and cellphone allowance in the Northampton budget.

    Using the adjusted figures (see chart below), it is apparent that Amherst spends considerably less per resident than the other towns in Hampshire County for their health departments. Looking at the per-resident expenditures for health: Northampton $25.68/resident, Easthampton $15.06/resident, Amherst $9.02/resident. These figures are not perfect but can provide a framework for how each town supports public health.

    In Massachusetts there is a decentralized governance structure of public health. All 351 towns and cities are independently organized for the delivery of local public health services and operate autonomously from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Each city and town has a Board of Health but not all have health departments.

    Do you know what the Amherst health department does? The health department’s mission is to promote the health and well being of the community. It provided town wide COVID 19 vaccination clinics during the pandemic and distributed COVID tests. The health department continues to do this with an emphasis on our vulnerable and at-risk residents. It holds vaccination clinics for COVID and flu, and childhood immunizations. It monitors for and responds to communicable disease outbreaks including measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, hepatitis, noro-virus, salmonellosis, and others. The health department follows any adult or child who has been screened for tuberculosis and found to have the disease. In FY 22 the health department provided screening and prevention for 54 cases. When there is a case of tuberculosis in town, the health department provides staff to support treatment and monitoring of the case with Direct Observed Therapy (DOT). The Health Department works in conjunction with the Department of Public Works to make sure residents who use sharps (needles, lancets, and syringes) have access to appropriate containers for their sharps and dispose of them at designated disposal site. It enforces health and sanitary code regulations. The health department staff build bridges with other town departments and health and human services organizations, agencies, and providers to meet the needs of residents. The health department provides education and educational links for town residents on issues related to health and wellbeing. It works with other town departments and regional organizations to develop emergency preparedness plans for a wide rage of hazards.

    I am concerned! When another pandemic or other crisis occurs will our health department be able to adequately respond to our needs?

    Amherst Northampton Easthampton
    Population (Adjusted) 20,059 29,327 16,045
    Personnel (Adjusted) $173,541 $546,878 $233,490
    Operating Expenses $11,020 $206,230 $8,135
    Budget for Comparison $184,561 $753,108 $241,625
    Total Budget FY 24 $184,561 $1,891.891 $291,082
    Per resident investment $9.20 $25.68 $15.06

  6. Here is the reformatted data for comparing health departments:
    Population: 20,059 (adjusted)
    Personnel Services: $173,541
    Operating Expenses: $11,020
    Comparison Budget: $184,561 (actual)
    Total FY 24 Budget: $184,561
    Per resident investment: $9.20

    Population: 29,327
    Personnel Services: $546,878 (adjusted)
    Operating Expenses: $206,230
    Comparison Budget: $753,108 (adjusted)
    Total FY 24 Budget: $1,891.891
    Per resident investment: $25.68

    Population: 16,045
    Personnel Services: $233,490 (adjusted)
    Operating Expenses: $8,135
    Comparison Budget: $241,625 9 (adjusted)
    Total FY 24 Budget: $291,082
    Per resident investment: $15.06

  7. Does anyone know if either the Board of Health or the Health Department has any oversight/responsibility regarding unhealthy work environments for its employees in Town owned buildings?

  8. Where can the Amherst Emergency Preparedness Plans be found related to weather, comunication/ food/power/water outages and shortages, safety lockdowns and pandemics ?

  9. In response to Kitty’s question about what percentage of Amherst voters voted YES in 2021 to approve funding for the library, see Christina Platt’s numbers right above.

    The number 64% has been proclaimed over and over as a sign of overwhelming support for the library expansion and renovation. Such a claim is misleading when seen in the context of the total number of registered voters, which should be seen as much more representative of town sentiment about this project. When looked at through that lens, the number drops to barely 20% of ALL registered voters in town, which hardly qualifies as overwhelming support.

    It could be argued that by not voting, those who didn’t go to the polls are happy with the plan. It could also be argued that they don’t really care either way. And it could just be that they are so busy trying to keep their heads above water that voting on local matters is simply not one of their priorities.

    The other disturbing thing about these numbers is to look at how the number of registered voters in town has changed in the last 10 years. From 2013 to 2018, total numbers were in the 19,000 to 20,000 range, with a high of 22,228 in that pivotal year 2016. Since then, the numbers have steadily dropped: 17,269 in 2019, 16,572 in 2020, 16,187 in 2021, 14,504 in 2022, and 13,700 in 2023. All these numbers are for elections that took place in November.

    From 20,341 in 2013 (a March town election) to 13,700 in 2023 (a November election), there has been a 33% drop in the number of registered voters in town. Likely this is due to multiple factors: Students registered in their home towns, out-of-state and foreign students, those who are so disgusted with politics that they simply decline to participate. It is hard to assign a cause without serious research. But the drop itself does suggest that involvement in local politics is not a high priority for many, even in the face of issues such as debt-exclusion overrides, which do have a direct and personal effect on all residents.

    With these numbers, claims that a vocal minority is standing in the way of progress that will benefit all could just as well be reversed to say that a vocal minority is pushing an expensive project that the vast and silent majority of residents don’t really care about.

  10. I wish there were a way to highlight Denise’s comment and keep it for us all to reflect on. I agree with her speculations, however depressing they seem, and think that they have major implications for those who desire greater public participation in town affairs. We are all vocal minorities!

  11. How about lawn signs all over town to the effect of “Are you going to let 20% (hope I have that right- 64% of 33%) of the Town’s voters obligate ALL of us to back a $50 (?) million dollar library expansion instead of a new fire station or DPW building? VOTE the expansion down!”

    Rewording may be necessary to get it exactly right, but you get the drift

  12. I really appreciate the additional detail from Nancy. It’s helpful in looking at the public health proposal.

    What would be even more helpful would if the kind of work that Nancy just put in to share that information, could be done in a consistent fashion for all the kinds of services the town provides. Just imagine — a report, or set of tables, that connect # of full-time / part-time residents with the kinds of services / economic impact. No more seeing people (not you, Nancy) advance numbers that frankly feel really squirrely. Having some data to shed some light on the foggy data that is too often cited would be really helpful.

  13. Please take this for what it is, the experience of one citizen of Amherst who collected nomination signatures to run for the Jones Board of Trustees in 2023. Reviewing copies of my nomination papers I will focus on the 40 signatures gathered in my neighborhood. 30 from citizens who reside in Echo Hill condominiums and 10 from homes in the Echo Hill South area. These signatures were collected by going door to door without a voters list, randomly finding registered voters. I would explain to my neighbors the need for the signatures to run, ask if they had thoughts regarding the Jones Library, and answered questions about what my concerns were. I spoke with only two people who advocated for the proposed Jones renovation, one who thought the project was far enough along that it should go forward, four people who identified as having a close connection with the Jones who thought the project too big and/or costly, and at least six who thought the taxes for everything in Amherst were too high. Again, just my experience, just my neighborhood.

  14. Tom,
    We’ll take one of those signs and know of many, many registered voters who would as well.

  15. Closer to 21%…

    But let a thousand signs sprout!

    And please reserve 2.5% of those for the lawns of The Mammoth (some of which are part of the publicly-owned Amherst Town Common or the public way of South Pleasant Street) and along the public ways in front of the homes of those who need to see this most: the Trustees of Jones Library, the Members of the Town Council, and the Town Manager.

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